Portrait of a Culturally Immersive Scholar
In the Beacon Hill townhouse of Holly Davidson and Greg Nagy, charmingly decorated with Persian art and covered with beautiful Oriental rugs, we were gathered for what had become and on-again, off-again tradition.
It was the early 1990s. I was an undergraduate at Harvard and Holly the Harvard Persian Society for an evening of poetry reading.
We were a motley group—an Afghan, several Iranians of Christian, Jewish and Islamic heritage, a couple of American graduate students, and our host—all drawn together by our shared passion for Persian poetry.
Tea was served with sugar cubes and sweets, as it was every time we met, as we took turns to recite our favorite ghazal of Hafiz.
I met Holly by happenstance. She was a professor at Brandeis but lived in Harvard’s Currier House where Greg Nagy was House Master. A former resident of Currier House, a fellow I met on Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier en route to Harvard, suggested that I look her up.
“Holly is an authority on the Shahnameh,” my friend, who had a Muslim first name and a Jewish last name, said. “You’ll like her.”
Arriving at Harvard in the fall of 1990, I realized quickly that I was something of an anomaly — a curiosity, even — a rebel with a full beard fresh down from the mountains cast into a sea of America’s best and the brightest there to impress and outdo each other and to learn the tools of ambition and success in life.
I was scared. And lonely.
But if I wasn’t a math whiz or the valedictorian of a prestigious science school or a gifted scholar-athlete bound for Wall Street, I had something else going for me that gave me a certain measure of consolation: a full head of Persian poetry.
Not a lot of Shahnameh, I hate to admit, but a decent repertoire of Hafiz and Sa’di and Rumi, and a smattering of other greats, from Attar and San’ee and Bedil on down to Iqbal in the twentieth century, all etched in my memory since childhood and my young adult years.
Holly seemed a bit amused when I showed up at Currier House, wearing a Russian army jacket I’d picked up as a trophy from an abandoned Soviet outpost in eastern Afghanistan.
I did not dare ask her about her scholarship on the shahnameh but I told her I’d grown up in northern Afghanistan, not far from Samangan, where Tahminah, the wife of Rustam, was born, and the Amu Darya, where the tragedy of Rustam and Sohrab takes place.
That seemed to pique her interest, I think, as did my bold pronouncement that I was well versed in Persian poetry and wanted to meet Harvard professors of the several languages I spoke.
Holly knew them all and steered me in their direction: Richard Frye, the late giant of Indo-Iranian philology; Annemarie Schimmell, the renowned German scholar of Sufism; Wheeler Thackston, the professor of Persian and Turkic literature and South Carolina native who spoke “Persian with more of an accent than English.”
But Holly’s exuberance for Persian culture was infectious and she seemed to enjoy the company of people from my part of the world. But Harvard lacked a club to bring us all together.
Then an idea sprung up. What if, someone suggested, we form a student group dedicated to Persian cultural celebrations?
I don’t recall whose idea it was but I do remember the main co-conspirators behind the project: a Greek-Iranian woman, Holly Davidson and I.
I said it was a good idea. But first, we had to give it a name, a task that proved a little more nettlesome than we could have imagined.
So we met in Currier House and spent a good hour brainstorming.
To my horror, the first suggestion someone made was “Harvard Iranian Students Association” or something to that effect.
I was an Afghan — and a proud one at that — and I feared I’d be killed by my compatriots for selling out if I went along with anything like it.
We gotta be able to come up with something better.
So we argued back and forth, sometimes heatedly, sometimes cheerfully, until we settled, with a nod from Holly, on one that we all agreed to: Harvard Persian Society.
It was an odd name to give to an Iranian club – no Iranian goes around introducing himself as “Persian.”
But I was pleased by the choice, a cultural umbrella of sorts that theoretically encompassed modern Afghanistan and would spare me banishment by my Afghan brethren
Thus was born Harvard’s first Persian student association—with its own name, elected officers (one Afghan, the rest Iranians), weekly dinners, and, thanks to a generous donation from our new benefactor and mentor, a bank account.
But Holly was more than a patron of the club; she fully immersed herself in our cultural activities, from our annual Nowrooz celebrations to the Chahshanbeh suris that preceded them.
The chaharshanbeh suri was a long lost tradition in Afghanistan and I knew next to nothing about the ritual. When we held our first chahrshanbeh suri in the courtyard of Winthrop House where I lived, I remember mimicking Holly as she jumped over the fire gaily mouthing – surkhi I too az man, zardi I man az too.
Later that year Holly and Greg moved to Boston but if the move meant she couldn’t come to us as often we could go to her.
Everyone among us knew some Hafiz so we started off our first gathering with Hafiz and stuck to him.
I knew the first dozen or so ghazals of Hafiz by heart. Though not in those words, I offered to take a crack at it.
Alla ya ayihah saaqi ader kasan wa navil-ha
Kih ishq aasan namood awal wali uftaad mushkil haa.
When I finished, someone said, Bah-bah. Someone else said that my recitation, rendered in an Afghan accent, sounded authentic. I was gratified and grateful.
The Cup Bearer. The Cup. Wine. Drunkenness. The Beloved. Wine. These were metaphors, used to express the inexpressible.
But who cared about deciphering metaphors? The beauty of Hafiz is that he can be read on many levels and you don’t have to be a student of Sufism to marvel at the sound and beauty of his dark night and fearsome wave and tempestuous whirlpool:
Shab I taarik o beem I mawj o girdaab I chuneen haayil
Kuja daanand haali maa subuk baaran I saahil haa.
Holly taught Hafiz at Brandeis at the time – she once invited me to speak to her class – but on these evenings she took off her professor’s hat and dove into the poetry, as we all did, for its sheer beauty, giving less than air of a discussion group than a casual poetry gathering.
But to paraphrase Rumi, each of us befriended the poet following our own opinion.
If Sa’di was an imparter of wisdom and “a teacher of life,” as my father used to put it, Hafiz was an iconoclast, a rebel poet who did not miss a chance to expose the hypocrisy of his own day’s Taliban.
And I couldn’t resist reading one of my favorite ghazals during one of our readings:
Waa izaan keen jilwah dar mihrab o minbar meekunand
Choon ba khilwat merawand aan kaar I deegar mekunand
Mushkili daaram zih daanishmand I majlis baaz purs
Tawbah farmaayan chara khud tawbah kamtar mekunand
The preachers huff and puff on the mihrab and minbar
When they retire into their chambers, they do that “other thing”
I have a problem. Ask the wise amongst us:
Why is it that the preachers of repentance don’t themselves repent enough
Our poetry readings continued, on and off, for a while, each arranged, in the pre-Facebook and WhatsApp age, when Holly and I would run each other on campus and say it was time for another evening.
We didn’t meet often enough but whenever we did, I thought back to a now lost tradition in which I read the Gulistan with my father and the great poets with uncle, experiences that had filled my heart with a love of poetry. In Holy’s home, far away from Afghanistan and Iran, that tradition was being nurtured.